Sunday, June 29, 2014

Twitter warning

About 'Jacobingate'/'Jacobinghazi' as such, there is little to add.  This storify, and this blog post, identify its basic lineaments.  The core of it is a smear.  Whatever criticisms there are of Jacobin, the allegation that a woman was mocked by a Jacobin writer for receiving rape threats is manifestly untrue.

Yet, despite its manifest untruth, the claim was not only repeated ad nauseum by people who both could and should have been able to inform themselves, but lavishly embellished with even more outlandish claims.  'Did you know that Jacobin writers sent rape threats to...?  Did you know that they were encouraging people to send rape threats to...?  Omg, do you know who's a rape apologist now...?'  

If you know Twitter well enough, you'll know exactly what happened next.  Some people, in their futile way, offered corrections and rebuttals of the emerging myths.  Almost as soon as their 140 characters were conceived, typed out and submitted, they too were relentlessly monstered and baited, and further monstered and baited for objecting to being monstered and baited.  All of this, obviously, has nothing to do with good gender politics, or anything of the kind.  Yet it materially hurt Jacobin, which lost one of its star writers as a result.  And this sort of bullshit happens all the time.

There has thus far been no evidence that, during such contrived scandals, it is possible to cite any piece of proof that would convince the Twitstormers that they might be wrong.  Or indeed that they should take a look at the facts, or that the truth of the matter has any relevance.

And this is, I think, a fact that demands explanation.  For what I am discussing is not exactly the same type of thing as racist and sexist bullies, those sending rape and death threats on a daily basis, or otherwise harassing or trying to destroy targets in whom they are clearly libidinally invested.  Those sorts of bullies are easy to understand, and we know why they find Twitter so convivial.  They thrive not just on their own distance and anonymity, but on its psychic immediacy for their targets.  But the sort of scandal-mongering of which I write, while it partakes of similar dynamics, and while it often amounts to a feeding frenzy, is not secret, sordid, or guilty.  It is public, and ostentatious.  It is a behaviour that is exhibited by intelligent people being what they think is their conscientious best.

There are issues at stake here concerning how languages of liberation politics are used or misused, which this piece by a trans* activist usefully explores.  Otherwise, I shall spare you my thoughts on that topic.  There's also a political economy, insofar as these Twitstorms often involve leftists behaving stupidly.  I think this stupidity is symptomatic of internalised defeat, demoralisation and irrelevance, as a consequence of which there is a "floating bitterness" (as I've seen it described) which quickly becomes attached to prominent figures and institutions who for one reason or another have supposedly disappointed.  If there was more life on the Left, more sign of a popular movement, this sort of thing would be less common, or make less difference.  But forget that too, for the moment.

Isn't it long past time to say "there's just something about Twitter?"  And perhaps social media in general, but especially Twitter?  Please don't take this the wrong way.  I don't want rid of Twitter.  I understand that Twitter has uses apart from viciously bullying people whom we would rarely have the courage to confront IRL.  I understand that we need Twitter to keep tabs on Frankie Boyle's latest one-liners, to ensure that others are as enraged by #bbcqt as we are, and - apparently, so one hears  - to use anonymous accounts to source porn or post naked selfies.

Twitter is the id stream of the internet, and suppressing it will only make it worse.  I'm just saying, maybe there are certain aspects of the materiality of Twitter which contribute to these appalling recurrences.

First, clearly, 140 characters makes a difference.  It's supposed to.  The concision demanded by this form lends itself to, among other better things, the formulation of statements in the form of sentiments and platitudes.  It is not a format best suited to rigorous argument, but to the emphatic reiteration of dogma and sentimentality.

Second, Twitter is a marketing platform, which is designed to foster short-term buzz and hype.  It would be absurd for me to be pious about this aspect of Twitter, since I depend upon it to circulate my writing, and advertise upcoming events.  Still, this has effects.  The whole point of Twitter is that to fully participate in it, one has to get carried away with passing frenzies.

And it is not just a marketing platform for businesses.  The set-up is that every user account is an 'enterprise' cultivating a specific market.  This aggravates a tendency that Christopher Lasch had already identified back in the 1970s.  Lasch pointed out that 'the individual' was being extolled and celebrated and fetishised at just the point when selves were being relentlessly fragmented and redivided.  This lent itself to a particular kind of narcissism in which people, increasingly deprived of real agency, sought validation as 'individuals' in the mirror of society.  Twitter, while partaking of the fragmentation of the self into many enterprises, also functions as such a mirror.  Again, I'm too well ensconced in this glass house to start lobbing stones about narcissism (have you seen my instagram account yet?), but there's a particular form of online narcissistic behaviour which I think is especially contemptible, and that consists of soliciting approval and recognition as a Good Person for demonstrating worthy opinions, attitudes and affect.  Most deplorable of all in this vein is a low imitation of humanitarian intervention - the patronising pseudo-deference to whoever is deemed a worthwhile victim, on whose behalf one claims a right to a great deal of viciousness and for whose sake rigour and scruple can be jettisoned.

Finally, this is linked to a sort of panopticon effect, in that everyone is in principle potentially witnessed by, or drawn to the attention of, everyone else on Twitter.  One always wants to be 'retweeted' as much as possible, of course, but that attention can suddenly become toxic if one deviates from the norms of one's Twitter lifeworld.  So there is tremendous pressure - especially for those who basically live on Twitter - to constantly project a self consistent with one's ego-ideal.  But it's absolutely no mystery that this sort of strenuous high-mindedness should go hand-in-hand with a punitive, bullying streak - particularly if there's a chance of, through belabouring the scapegoat of the moment, establishing one's innocence before the invisible tribunal of one's peers.

This, then, is my thumbnail account of why Twitter is such an unutterable fucking mess.  Please RT widely.